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Retired teacher, longtime guide starts canoe day camp for St. John Valley young people

MADAWASKA, Maine — A new day camp to introduce St. John Valley kids to northern Maine’s rivers and lakes will launch at the end of July. 

Championed by Tom Gerard, an ex-Madawaska coach and teacher and longtime canoe guide, the camp aims to introduce kids in grades five through eight to water ecology, navigation and safety.

Each day, campers will set out in kayaks and canoes to explore a nearby waterbody with the camp’s two counselors: Hudson Labbe of Fort Kent and Jacob Pelletier of Madawaska. While Gerard has led multi-day canoe trips for years, he hopes the one-day format will help ease kids into nature recreation.

The camp is free of charge to the kids. Allagash Wilderness Waterway Foundation, where Gerard is a board member, is footing the bill with the aid of its sponsors. While the counselors will be employed by the Madawaska Recreation Department, AWWF will reimburse the town for those expenses — a deal the Board of Selectmen approved at a meeting in May.

The first session will run during the last week of July, specifically for kids in Madawaska and St. Agatha. The second will run the first week of August for kids in Fort Kent. A third session, the second week of August, will open up if there’s additional demand for spots. Signups are through the local recreation departments.

Gerard is on a mission to eradicate what he calls “nature deficiency disorder” in kids. Teaching children how to respect the environment and how to move through it safely early-on, Gerard hopes to spark an interest in the outdoors in the younger generation.

The day camp is the introductory phase in what Gerard hopes will become a three-part outdoor education experience for young people.

Phase two, a curriculum Gerard is calling “classroom to river,” is in the design phase with the board of Allagash Wilderness Waterway Foundation. The project is already greenlit by the school system, Gerard said, and would provide kids an ecological and historical background on the Allagash and area waterways. 

Though planning was postponed by COVID-19, the organizers are looking for teacher input in the coming year before finalizing the program

The third phase is a program Gerard has helped facilitate for years — a three or four-day overnight canoe trip for older kids, which is run through the Chewonki Outdoor Classroom in WIscasset. Alumni of this program include current Madawaska Recreation Director Sam Cyr. 

Gerard, who retired from Madawaska schools this year, said that he’s just getting started. Along with his regular guiding on the St. John River and in the Allagash, he hopes to continue to grow the outdoor education programming available to kids in the Valley.

“I’m not retired,” Gerard said. “I’m self-employed.”

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